Thursday, January 26, 2012

LeapBackBlog 2011 Film Awards – Part 4: Leading Performances

Film in 2011 saw many very good films. Deciding what made the lists and what did not was very difficult this year, and there are more than a few great films, performances and technical achievements that I had to leave off. The LeapBackBlog Film Awards are comprised of what I think were the best and most interesting films, the strongest performances (taking into consideration who the actor is and what else they have done, and 2011 again features a lot of amazing breakthrough performances), the narrative style that drew me in (best directing), and exquisite craftsmanship (best technical achievements). But really, these are lists of my favorites from the year.

Leading Performances:

The Descendants is built on its fantastic performances headlined by standout work from newcomer Shailene Woodley and George Clooney. He had a very good 2011 with this film and co-starring, co-writing and directing The Ides of March. In the last few years, Clooney has been making a name for himself as an acting heavyweight with performances in Syriana, Michael Clayton, Up in the Air, and The American. However with The Descendants, he does the best work of his career. There is still signs of his swagger that he brings to his work, but he is also very vulnerable and seems completely at a lose and out of his depth, which is perfect for his character Matt King a parent having to take sole responsibility for his two daughters for the first time while also being saddled with unwanted outside family pressures.

Viola Davis is a pillar of strength in The Help. It is easy to say the film is about perseverance and that her character Aibileen embodies all the qualities that come which the heroine of such a narrative, as that is true. But, The Help and Aibileen strive for more. Davis triumphs because of the depth and humanity she brings to the role. Yes, she is a strong woman as her character, but there is also a real fear as well. Without this fear, her story and actions would not resonate and mean as much as they do. The Help is one of the year’s best films because of the work of Davis and the other great actresses. Otherwise, it might have turned out to be another thinly veiled morally self-aggrandizing hollow film like Crash (one of the most overrated films of the last decade).

Winning the 2011 Cannes Film Festival Best Actress award for her performance in Melancholia, Kirsten Dunst does the best work of her career. Her character Justine has such an interesting arc – going from seemingly happy in the opening moments to being completely incapacitated by depression, only to find strength and purpose within herself when the world is about to end. She does not fear it, unlike all the other characters in the film. The range that the performance demands would be difficult for even great actresses, but Dunst seems to make it her own bringing such beauty and sadness to Justine. It is such a nuanced and subtle piece of work that I can only expect great thing from her in the future (as this is probably my favorite female performance of the year).

No one had a better 2011 than Michael Fassbender. He starred in four films (Jane Eyre, X-Men: First Class, A Dangerous Method, and Shame), giving brilliant performances in each (all of which could have probably made this list). However, it is with Shame that he does his most interesting work. As sex addict Brandon, Fassbender gives a haunting performance in which he seems to degrade himself into something subhuman. He completely gives himself over to the character (which must have been hard to deal with when the cameras were not rolling – the pain, anger and bleakness of it). Carey Mulligan gives another great supporting performance (in addition to Drive) and Fassbender plays off her very well. It is phenomenal work and one of the bravest performances of the 2011.

What is so incredible about Rooney Mara’s work in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is that her role was played ironically by Noomi Rapace in 2009 (2010 for U.S. audiences), and yet Mara brings so much to the role and is just as iconic (different, but equally as good, if not better). For those that have not seen her in Tanner Hall or the brilliant small supporting part she plays in The Social Network, her work here is the breakout performance of the year, as Mara is now a star and one of Hollywood’s most sought-after actresses. Mara plays Lisbeth Salander to be confident in troubling situations, but awkward and vulnerable when it comes to more personal relationships. She is mesmerizing, the audience misses her when she is not onscreen and anticipates her return (which can be said of the best performances).

In what is one of the most subtly and subdued performances of the year, Gary Oldman is absolutely phenomenal as George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Smiley is such a difficult role to portray cinematically, as he is so boxed up emotionally. But, Oldman is able to give the audience just enough to make Smiley relatable allowing the audience to feel what he feels, while still being true to the character. He is one of the best character actors working today. I am not sure a lesser actor could have pulled this performance off. It is not flashy, but easily one of the most intricate and best performances of 2011. Oldman also has a very good small part in the Deathly Hallows: Part 2.

Elizabeth Olsen’s performance in Martha Marcy May Marlene is another of 2011’s many wonderful breakthroughs. Martha is also yet another difficult character to play, as so much of it needed to be shown subtlety so that her episodes dealing with constant fear and dread can come off feeling real (whether it actually is or not). The narrative structure of the film juxtaposes Martha on the compound with after she escapes and is staying with her sister (seemingly now a wreck). Olsen’s complete change in demeanor in each is remarkable. She also plays off fantastic character actor John Hawkes, who plays the cult leader, very well – and this being her first real dramatic performance.

Like good friend George Clooney, Brad Pitt has established himself as one of the best actors working right now (with recent performances in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, among others). Pitt had a good 2011 as an actor as well with very good work in The Tree of Life and Moneyball. In Moneyball, Pitt plays maverick baseball GM Billy Beane – struggling to produce a good team without any money and also struggling with his own sense of self worth. Pitt plays it as if Beane is a loner, outside the system – a bit like a stoic cowboy out on the range. He has become a fabulous actor and I look forward to his future work.

With the role of Hanna in Hanna, I cannot imagine anyone else playing it (let alone as well) other than Saoirse Ronan. Physically, this is an extremely challenging role, as Ronan needed to both hit all the right dramatic notes in the coming-of-age story and all the action beats in the thriller aspect. She is completely believable as an action star, handling the fight sequences with grace and confidence. But, she is an even better dramatic actress. Hanna is a character completely virgin to the world, raised in solitude, and Ronan brings wonder be it guarded to the role. Building on her excellent breakthrough performance in Atonement, Ronan is one of the best young actresses right now.

Ever since Michael Shannon’s performance in Revolutionary Road, he has been an actor to watch. With his performance as Curtis in Take Shelter, Shannon captures the sheer panic of someone who feels like they are losing their mind. He does a lot of the dramatic work with his face and eyes, gradually letting the feelings of desperation, alarm and agitation take hold. This seems to be one of the forgotten performances of 2011, but it is certainly one of the best. Almost the whole narrative is predicated on Shannon’s work, and he is brilliant.

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